European Commission officials are expected to hold talks with government representatives in Bulgaria over the alleged mismanagement of funds in the operational programme Science and Education for Smart Growth, or SESG, in the European Union budget.
The SESG programme involves an investment of €673 million (US$710 million), of which €596 million is from the EU budget, with this funding drawn from the European Union social and regional development funds in the period 2014-20.
The objectives are to strengthen research and innovation, general and higher education and vocational training. During the funding period the programme is expected to create 12 new centres of excellence and competence, and support 18 regional laboratories and support 1,500 scholars and 160,000 students.
Bulgaria has received funding for 116 agreements totalling BGN324 million (€165 million or US$174 million), and of these, eight projects have reportedly been found to be mismanaged, with a total budget of BGN180 million (€92 million or US$97 million).
Bulgaria’s Interim Education Minister Nicolay Denkov said, according to the Sofia News Agency Novinite, that a “financial correction” will be imposed by Brussels on Bulgaria over “irregularities” in the operation of the education and research SESG programme.
Bulgaria, having a ‘caretaker government’ until new elections can he held in the spring, has been marred by such irregularities in the handling of EU funds ever since it became a member of the European Union in 2007.
Former prime minister Boyko Borisov, according to Novinite, said that he knew about these operational irregularities last autumn when he was in office, but that he had refrained from taking action in order to preserve the stability of the government.
Borisov then instructed his deputy prime minister, Tomislav Donchev, to write letters, but he “did not want his government to collapse”.
The spokesperson for the European Commission, Christian Wigand, said that the correspondence between the Bulgarian ministry and the EU was confidential and that “talks were underway”.
The European Commission confirmed on Tuesday that an audit of Bulgaria had been carried out in relation to the funds for science and education but specified that the report from the audit was not ready and funding has not been stopped. “The Commission is in constant contact with Bulgarian authorities on the application of operational programmes.”
Responsibility for mismanagement
The private independent website Bivol published an article on 9 February about the alleged mismanagement of the operational programme, discussing who might be held responsible. Bivol printed a facsimile of the audit letter from the European Commission based on the audit that took place between 24 October and 28 October 2016.
The audit noted seven points showing “significant deficiencies” in the operations of the SESG programme, stating that “any future applications for interim payment in relation to the programme in question will not be further processed… until the Commission has the assurance that the national authorities have taken the corrective measures”.
Novinite on 10 February reported that Denkov – the interim education minister – had requested that the head of the managerial body of the operational programme based in the ministry, Tsvetana Gerdzikova, should resign.
Gerdzikova, according to Bivol, refuted the allegations that she was responsible and said that she “would not be held liable for mistakes made by other managers”.
Meanwhile Denkov appointed a new head of the managerial body with considerable experience in management and implementation, including auditing of EU funds – the Deputy Education Minister Vanya Stoyneva.
Constrictive EU requirements
Dr Roxana Bratu, a research associate in Global and European Anti-corruption Policies at University College London in the United Kingdom, told University World News: “It is easy to mismanage EU funds when the requirements for transparency and management are more constrictive than the usual way of doing things in Bulgaria.
“The frequent change in management top echelons induces additional uncertainty due to the lack of familiarity of the newcomer with the constrictive EU rules and regulations and the lack of a professional depoliticised administration that would be able to absorb political incompetence.”
Bratu added: “The mass protests from Romania against the government's attempt to introduce changes in the legislation that decriminalised corruption, show a massive popular support for the anti-corruption agenda and an overwhelmingly pro-EU orientation in this part of Europe.
“Bulgarian society is not dissimilar; hence the Bulgarian politicians should tread carefully as the social trust in the political class is already a sensitive matter.
“The situation needs to be resolved as a matter of urgency before Bulgaria takes up the heading of the EU Council in January 2018. The economic and social costs associated with EU funding mismanagement are, under these particular circumstances, augmented by the fact that it will be much more challenging to put forward the Bulgarian agenda during the EU Council presidency while struggling to unfreeze the EU funding,” Bratu said.
In the interim government which took office on 27 January 2017, Denitsa Zlateva has the portfolio of Deputy Prime Minister for the Preparation of Bulgaria’s Presidency of the Council of the European Union in 2018.
Bulgarian President Rumen Radev said: “The EU presidency is not only a challenge but also a great chance for Bulgaria to demonstrate leadership and defend our priorities.
“In order to implement this task there is a need to improve the cooperation and coordination among the institutions at all levels. That is why the line-up of the interim government includes a post of deputy prime minister in charge of the EU presidency,” the Bulgarian head of state explained.
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